Using European XFEL to shed light on photosynthesis

First membrane protein studied at European XFEL

In a paper now published in Nature Communications an international group of scientists show that the fast X-ray pulse rate produced by the European XFEL can be used to study the structure of membrane proteins such as those involved in the process of photosynthesis. These results open up eagerly awaited experimental opportunities for scientists studying these types of proteins.

Large proteins and protein complexes are difficult to study with traditional structural biology approaches. Large protein complexes, such as those that sit across cell membranes and regulate traffic in and out of cells, are difficult to crystalize and generally only produce small crystals that are hard to analyse. The extremely fast X-ray pulses generated by European XFEL now enable scientists to collect large amounts of data from a stream of small crystals to develop detailed models of the 3D structure of these proteins.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image (extract, full illustration in the article): Graphic shows the basic design of a serial femtosecond crystallography experiment at European XFEL. X-ray bursts strike crystallized samples resulting in diffraction patterns that can be reassembled into detailed images.
Credit: Shireen Dooling for the Biodesign Institute at ASU

Structure and functional binding epitopes of VISTA

V-domain Ig Suppressor of T-cell Activation (VISTA) is an immune checkpoint protein involved in the regulation of T cell activity. Checkpoint proteins are overexpressed by cancer cells or surrounding immune cells and prevent anti-tumor activity by co-opting natural regulation mechanisms to escape immune clearance. Compared to healthy tissues, VISTA is upregulated on tumor infiltrating leukocytes, including high expression on myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs). Through VISTA signaling, these inhibitory immune cells prevent effective antigen presentation and indirectly promote tumor growth. VISTA is implicated in a number of human cancers including skin (melanoma), prostate, colon, pancreatic, ovarian, endome­trial, and non-small cell lung. VISTA is a known member of the B7 protein family but the mechanism of action is still unclear as VISTA has been shown to function as both a ligand1,2 and a receptor3.  In the model of VISTA as a receptor, the proposed ligand of interaction is V-set and immunoglobulin domain containing 3 (VSIG3)4,5.

>Read more on the SSRL website

Image: Structure of human VISTA with extended C-C’ loop (blue), mapped VSTB/VSIG3 binding epitope (red), and disulfide bonds (yellow).

Discoveries map out CRISPR-Cas defence systems in bacteria

For the first time, researchers at the University of Copenhagen have mapped how bacterial cells trigger their defence against outside attacks. This could affect how diseases are fought in the future.

With the aid of highly advanced microscopes and synchrotron sources, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have gained critical insight into how bacteria function as defence mechanisms against attacks from other bacteria and viruses. The study, which has just been published in the renowned journal, Nature Communications, also describes how the defence systems can be activated on cue. This discovery can turn out to be an important cornerstone in fighting diseases in the future.

The researchers have shown how a cell attacked by a virus activates a molecule called COA (Cyclic Oligoadenylate), which in turn activates a so-called protein complex called CSX1 to eradicate the attacker.

>Read more on the MAX IV website

Image: Model of the CSX1 protein complex.

A citizen-science computer game for protein design

Using the computer game, “Foldit,” nonexpert citizen scientists designed new proteins whose structures, verified at the Advanced Light Source (ALS), were equivalent in quality to and more structurally diverse than computer-generated designs.

Proteins constitute the biomachinery—the cellular gears and levers—that make our bodies work. When this machinery is running smoothly, nutrients get absorbed, cells regenerate, and so on. When the machinery breaks down, the tools needed to fix the problem (i.e. drug molecules) are often proteins themselves.

Until recently, the pool of proteins available for such therapeutic purposes was limited to those found in nature. But natural proteins represent a small subset of all the possible ways to link 20 amino acids—the basic building blocks of all proteins—into chains hundreds, even thousands, of units long. On top of this, there are countless ways in which any given protein chain can fold—a key aspect of functionality.

In the last 20 years, “de novo” protein design (from scratch as opposed to starting with a known protein) has taken off, promising cheap and effective drugs with fewer side effects. But given the huge number of possibilities available, scientists are limited in their ability to fully explore this vast “protein space.”

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website on Berkeley Lab

Image: The user interface of Foldit, a free online computer game developed to crowdsource problems in protein modeling. (a) The Foldit score: better models yield higher scores. (b) The design palette allows players to change the amino acids in the protein chain. (c) The “pull” tool allows players to manipulate the 3D structure of the model. (d) The “undo” graph tracks the score as a model is developed and allows players to backtrack. (e) Additional tool selections.

Preventing heart attacks

Scientists have taken an important step towards finding a potential cure for the disease that causes strokes and heart attacks in seniors and increases the mortality rate of diabetic and chronic kidney disease patients.
Researchers from the University of McGill and SickKids Toronto in collaboration with Universite de Montreal developed a simplified laboratory model that mimics the formation of mineral deposits that harden arteries and leads to these devastating conditions.
They used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to understand the type of minerals that formed and how they develop on the arteries.
“The goal in developing our lab model is that it would help us understand the mineralization process. We can then mimic what happens, and use it to test hypotheses on why the minerals are forming and also test some drugs to find something that can stop it,” said lead researcher Dr. Marta Cerruti.
Her six-member team is focused on the poorly understood process of how minerals form and grow on elastin, a protein on artery walls that provides the elasticity needed for blood flow to the heart, said Cerruti, an associate professor in Materials Engineering at McGill.
The hypothesis is that calcium phosphate-containing minerals form inside the walls of arteries and then calcify into a bone-like substance that narrows arteries and causes them to lose elasticity crucial for blood flow.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Marta Cerruti (left) and Ophelie Gourgas in a laboratory using a Raman machine.

Mutated protein could become a non-hormonal contraceptive target

An international team of scientists from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Nagoya University has explained how mutations in egg coat protein ZP1 cause infertility in women. The study suggests that ZP1 could be a promising candidate for future non-hormonal contraceptive efforts.
ZP1 is a glycoprotein involved in the fertilization of eggs by cross-linking egg coat filaments. Because studies in mice showed that lack of ZP1 reduces but does not abolish fertility, scientists believed that this molecule was also not crucial for fertility in humans. This new study, however, suggests that ZP1 may have a much more important role in human reproduction than previously thought. “The results were a big surprise because they suggested that mutations that truncate the human ZP1 protein cause female sterility by hindering its cross-linking function, rather than interfering with other egg coat proteins”, explains Luca Jovine, professor at the Karolinska Institutet and leader of the study.

>Read more on the ESRF website

Image: The mutation W83R of human ZP1 does not hinder its secretion but reduces its cross-linking (panel b), likely due to the fact that – as suggested by the structure of chicken ZP1 (panel a) – W83 (W72 in chicken ZP1) stacks between a sugar attached to ZP1 and the loop that makes the cross-link (“cd loop”). The part of the sugar chain that stacks against W83, which is a fucose residue, was only resolved in the structure of the fully glycosylated protein (violet) whose data came from ESRF ID23-1.

Potassium hunting on protein factories

Amazing insights into the location of elusive potassium ions on bacterial ribosomes

Groundbreaking research at the new long-wavelength macromolecular crystallography beamline (I23) at Diamond Light Source has for the first time demonstrated the location of potassium ions in bacterial ribosomes. Ribosomes are the protein factories of cells and although they are vital for life, little was known of the sites of metal ions that are crucial for their structure and function. The work recently published in Nature Communications showcases the fantastic applications of the I23 beamline and sheds light on the important role of potassium ions.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: (extract, full image here) 70S ribosome elongation complex (potassium atoms rendered as green spheres).

The interaction between two proteins involved in skin mechanical strength

A research team from the Centro de Investigación del Cáncer of the Universidad de Salamanca has obtained a detailed 3D image of the union between two hemidesmosomal proteins.

The structure of this complex has been unveiled using XALOC beamline techniques, at the ALBA Synchrotron. The results, published in “Structure”, provide insights to understand how these epithelial adhesion structures are formed. Researchers from Centro de Investigación del Cáncer – Instituto de Biología Molecular y Celular del Cáncer of Salamanca, from Centro Universitario de la Defensa in Zaragoza, and from the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam have described how two essential proteins interact to each other in order to join epidermis and dermis together. This study reveals at atomic scale how the binding between two hemidesmosomal proteins called integrin α6β4 and BP230 takes place.
Epithelial tissues, such as epidermis, settle on fibrous sheets called basement membrane, formed by extracellular matrix proteins. The junction between epithelia and basement membrane happens through hemidesmosomes, multi-protein complexes located at the membrane of epithelial cells. Integrin α6β4 is an essential protein of the hemidesmosomes, which adheres to proteins of the basement membrane. Inside the cell cytoplasm, plectin and BP230 proteins bind to α6β4 and connect it to the intermediate filaments of the cytoskeleton. Genetic or autoimmune alterations that affect the hemidesmosomal proteins reduce skin resistance and cause diseases such as bullous pemphigoid and various types of epidermolysis bullosa.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: Structure of β4(WT)-BP230 complex.

Capturing protein motion at FemtoMAX

Your body contains a large variety of different proteins. They are big, complex molecules with diverse functions, from transporting oxygen in your blood to making your muscles contract.

Many proteins change their shape and move as they perform their task. A research team from the University of Gothenburg recently visited the beamline FemtoMAX to develop a method for studying moving proteins. They use electric fields to stimulate motion of the proteins in a sample while imaging them with the X-ray beam.
To study how proteins move, we need something to nudge them and then image them after they have changed position. Certain proteins are activated by light and in that case, the researchers can hit them with a laser pulse to provoke the motion. However, that is far from always the case. In the method being developed by the Gothenburg team, the proteins are instead subjected to an electric field that make them move.
The field is synchronized to the short, femtosecond scale (10-15 s) X-ray pulses delivered at beamline FemtoMAX. Each X-ray pulse hitting the sample is like taking a photograph using extremely short shutter speed, just like trying to get sharp images of players on a football field. The X-ray pulses at FemtoMAX are short enough to let the researchers capture the instantaneous position of the protein. By varying the time between the electric field and the X-ray pulse they can see different stages of the movement and even put the frames together as a movie of the protein motion.

>Read more on the MAX IV Laboratory website

A new molecule could help put the STING on cancer

The protein STING (stimulator of interferon genes) is a component of the innate immune system. It plays a major role in the immune response to cancer, and abnormal STING signaling has been shown to be associated with certain cancers. Immunomodulatory approaches using agonists to target STING signaling are therefore being investigated as anticancer treatments. However, the compounds in clinical trials typically are injected intratumorally in patients with solid cancers. In this study, researchers discovered a novel STING agonist, known as an amidobenzimidazole (ABZI), which can be given by intravenous injection and could therefore potentially open up its evaluation as a treatment for hard-to-reach cancers. Using x-ray diffraction data collected at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), researchers from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) investigated ABZI compounds and STING. Their results, published in the journal Nature, may have important implications for anticancer immunotherapy.

STING is a protein that mediates innate immunity, and one function of the STING signaling pathway is in mobilizing an immune response against tumors. STING proteins can be activated by cyclic dinucleotides, small molecules that are made by the cytosolic DNA sensor, cGAS, upon sensing of DNA leaking out of the nucleus as a result of DNA damage, including that which might be associated with cancer development.

>Read more on the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab.

Figure: X-ray crystal structure of the STING protein bound to one of the new molecules.

Clear view of “Robo” neuronal receptor opens door for new cancer drugs

During brain development, billions of neuron nerve cells must find accurate pathways in the brain in order to form trillions of neuronal circuits enabling us to enjoy cognitive, sensory and emotional wellbeing.

To achieve this remarkable precision, migrating neurons use special protein receptors that sense the environment around them and guide the way so these neurons stay on the right path. In a new study published in Cell, researchers from Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University in Israel, EMBL Grenoble in France and University of Exeter in the UK report on their discovery of the intricate molecular mechanism that allows a key guidance receptor, “Robo”, to react to signals in its environment.

One of the most important protein signaling systems that guide neurons consists of the cell surface receptor “Robo” and its external guidance cue, “Slit”. “Slit and Robo can be identified in virtually all animals with a nervous system, from a 1 mm-long nematode all the way to humans,” explains researcher Yarden Opatowsky, associate professor and head of the Laboratory of Structural Biology at Bar-Ilan University and who led the research.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: A surface representation of the crystal structure of the extracellular portion of human Robo2. The yellow region represents the domain where dimerisation takes place. Here, we see it blocked by the other domains, meaning dimerisation cannot take place and that Robo2 is inactivated.
Credit: Y. Opatowsky.

Encapsulation of drugs for new cancer treatments

Research develops hydrogel from silk protein with potential application in photodynamic therapy

Cancer is a set of diseases characterized by uncontrolled multiplication of cells. One of the main methods for treating this disease is chemotherapy, which uses drugs to block the growth of those cells or to destroy them. In this way, most drugs used interfere with mitosis, the cellular mechanism by which new cells are produced. Therefore, both cancerous and healthy cells are affected, leading to several side effects.
Worldwide, considerable effort has been directed at developing new methods that act directly on the target of treatment. This is the case of so-called photodynamic therapy (PDT), a minimally invasive therapeutic procedure that selectively acts on malignant cells.
The procedure involves the administration of a light-sensitive substance, called a photosensitizing agent. When irradiated at specific wavelengths, the photosensitizer releases oxygen in reactive chemical forms that promote the death of malignant cells, infectious agents and the removal of burns.

>Read more on the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) website

A timely solution for the photosynthetic oxygen evolving clock

XFEL Hub collaboration reveals the intermediates of the photosynthetic water oxidation clock

A large international collaborative effort aided by the XFEL Hub at Diamond Light Source has generated the most detailed time-resolved studies to date of a key protein involved in photosynthesis. The pioneering work, recently published in Nature, shows how photosystem II harnesses light energy to produce oxygen – insights that could direct a next generation of photovoltaic cells. 
>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: this figure is issued from a video you can watch here.

A two-pronged defense against bacterial self-intoxication

Researchers solved the structure of a bacterial toxin bound to a neutralizing protein, revealing two distinct mechanisms for how the toxin-producing bacteria avoid poisoning themselves.

Microbial communities are of fundamental importance to virtually all natural ecosystems, from the ocean floor to the gastrointestinal tract. Although the term “communities” implies cooperation, scientists now realize that bacterial colonies compete with each other for life-sustaining resources, availing themselves of a variety of strategies to reduce overcrowding. In some cases, they secrete toxins in their fight for survival. Here, researchers studied one such toxin from the bacterium Serratia proteamaculans, various strains of which live inside tree roots or inhabit the digestive tracts of insects and other animals.

Toxin targets cell division

The researchers showed that the toxin, Tre1, targets a bacterial protein, FtsZ, which is analogous to tubulin in human cells. Tubulin molecules are the building blocks of microtubules—long polymers that provide structure and shape to our cells and play an important role in cell division. In bacteria, FtsZ loses the ability to polymerize when attacked by the Tre1 toxin. Instead of dividing, the intoxicated cells grow longer and longer until they eventually split open and die (cellular elongation and lysis).

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: Healthy bacteria (left) and bacteria (right) whose cell-division machinery has been disrupted by a toxin newly discovered in some bacterial arsenals.
Credit: Mougous Lab

Understanding the protein responsible for regulating heartbeats

A new research project uses the Canadian Light Source to help researchers understand the protein responsible for regulating heartbeats. Errors in this crucial protein’s structure can lead to potentially deadly arrhythmias, and understanding its structure should help researchers develop treatments. This protein, calmodulin (CaM), regulates the signals that cause the heart to contract and relax in almost all animals with a heartbeat.

“Usually you find some differences between versions of proteins from one species to another,” explains Filip Van Petegem, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “For calmodulin that’s not the case—it’s so incredibly conserved.”

It also oversees hundreds of different proteins within the body, adjusting a broad array of cellular functions that are as crucial to our survival and health as a steady heartbeat.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: A surface representation of the disease mutant CaM (D95V, red) in complex with the piece of the voltage-gated calcium channel (blue).

Know your ennemy

Light source identifies a key protein interaction during E. coli infection

Escherichia coli is a common source for contaminated water and food products, causing the condition known as gastroenteritis with symptoms that include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, loss of energy, and dehydration. In fact, for children or individuals with weakened immune systems, this bacterial infection in the gut can be life-threatening.

One of the microbes responsible for gastroenteritis, known formally as enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC), causes infections by directing a pointed, needle-like projection into the human intestinal tract, releasing toxins that make people sick.

“Enteropathogenic E. coli can fire toxic proteins from inside the bacterium right into the cells of your gut lining,” says Dustin Little, a post-doctoral researcher in the Brian Coombes lab at McMaster University’s Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Dustin Little and Brian Coombes in the lab.
Credit: Dustin Little.